Monash University
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Custodians of purity : an ethnography of the Brahma Kumaris

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posted on 2017-02-02, 03:05 authored by Ramsay, Tamasin
This thesis is an ethnographic study of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (Brahma Kumaris). The Brahma Kumaris is a millenarian new religious movement (NRM) established in Northwest India in the 1930s in 2009 and is located in more than 120 countries. I define members (BKs) of the Brahma Kumaris as social ascetics. BKs live a life of rigorous purity, based around their central practice of meditation. The disciplines of these social ascetics are designed to free the mind, through mastery over the body, culminating in self-sovereignty. While some BKs live in ashrams in moderately cloistered communities, most live at home with their families and conduct normal lives according to their environment, culture and circumstances. For this reason, BKs endure and moderate unique tensions as they arbitrate leading a life that is spiritually meaningful while maintaining authentic relationships and fulfilling their worldly responsibilities. Over a period of fifteen months, I conducted fieldwork in New York, USA and Orissa, India in an attempt to understand how BKs actualize their beliefs in traumatic circumstances through a variety of disasters including a flood, cyclone and act of terrorism, as well as personal battles and a case of spirit possession. BK theology rests on the belief that each person is an immutable, conscious and inherently valuable eternal and immortal soul, an infinitesimal point of light that dwells in the forehead of the physical costume of the body. Originally pure and embodying peaceful and joyous states of awareness, all souls have gradually lost their original purity and associated happiness and peace through taking rebirth in the physical world. BKs believe the world we live in today is the result of that spiritual demise. The present time in which humanity is living is the time when the lowest and highest points of human and environmental history converge, and is known as the age of confluence or Sangamyuga. It culminates in liberation, peace and happiness for all souls, and restoration for the world. The research shows that within Brahma Kumaris philosophy, acts of war and environmental demise, political unrest and financial collapse are expected and understood to be the natural order of things, as the impurity of the world comes to its zenith. BKs normalize what the world considers to be ‘disasters’ through their theology. This thesis explores the ways in which BKs respond to environmental disasters and acts of war, as well as threats to physical and spiritual purity. BKs say that it is purity that will restore balance, value and peace. I analyze how BKs’ focus on purity influences the ways in which they manage traumatic circumstances, and the ways that they discuss those circumstances and engage in acts of care. For BKs purity is the seed of peace, happiness and world restoration. Impurity is the cause of the world’s decline and the associated horrors and sorrow. Therefore, for BKs, a threat to or violation of purity is the most significant disaster. Ultimately the thesis argues that BKs live with daily tensions that may make them a potentially valuable and calming, non-proselytizing resource for the broader community during disasters. This can have further implications for the ways in which faith-based communities are utilized and may enable disaster managers to more courageously integrate the spiritual skills of faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their members. It also exposes difficulties that spiritual practitioners must manage, in a world in which people may be oblivious to unusual forms of tension.


Principal supervisor

Lenore Manderson

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Psychological Sciences

Campus location



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences